Bernie Sanders vs. the Out-of-touch American Jewish Establishment

Sanders' Jewish socialism, his recognition of the injustice of the occupation, is a rebuke to those in the U.S. and Israel who believe Jews should only care about other Jews’ freedom and dignity. No wonder they’re trying to marginalize him.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign event in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, April 13, 2016.
Victor J. Blue, Bloomberg

As Jews in the U.S., we are taught over and over about the history of our persecution. American Jews are applying the lessons we learned from that history — and the reality of our current situation — by supporting Bernie Sanders. 

The out-of-touch American Jewish establishment — and some of their funders on Wall Street — believe the lesson of the history of Jewish persecution is to join with the powerful to protect ourselves. Many Jews in America believe our safety lies in becoming a part of the American empire, white supremacy, or corporate capitalism. 

But as this generation comes of age in an economy wrecked by greed, a society alienated from each other by the gospel of individualism and the violent lies of racism, in an empire laid bare by the foolishness of conquest, we are looking for truth-tellers who defy the corrupt political and economic establishment. Bernie Sanders resonates with this generation of American Jews because he speaks with a prophetic voice that is at the heart of our tradition. 

It is no mere coincidence that the voice calling us to wholeness by speaking the truth of our interconnection amidst the ruins of our division is a Jewish voice. 

The tradition of democratic socialism that Bernie comes from has deeply Jewish roots — and has never been more relevant than it is today. Bernie comes from a long tradition of Jews who believe that striving for all people to enjoy the fruits of freedom and justice is the essence of being Jewish. The tradition of Jewish socialism comes from understanding that we are a people who have been dehumanized for who we are, and divided from our neighbors, throughout history. It is based on a commitment to our mutual interdependence as both a matter of self-interest and profound moral belief. 

“I am very proud of being Jewish and that’s an essential part of who I am as a human being,” Bernie Sanders has said. When asked to define what being Jewish means to him, Bernie said, “[Being Jewish] means all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”

This message speaks deeply to those of us who have seen the failure of capitalism run of, by, and for Wall Street and the billionaire class; of a foreign policy and an American Jewish establishment guided by fear and hatred; of a political system run by big money funders. To millions of young people — Jew and Gentile alike — this vision of a society bound together across difference is the obvious remedy to the challenges we face. To Jewish socialists, there is nothing more Jewish than looking into the face of another people and recognizing our common humanity. This message is no longer confined to the Polish factory workers, New York tenement residents, or kibbutzim of the 1920s and 30s — it is deeply relevant to American Jews today.

When we look at the immigrant community in this country and see their vilification and exclusion, we recognize the courage of our ancestors who fled from lands that offered neither hope nor safety. 

When we look at the millions of black lives that have been devalued and destroyed, we recognize the history of how whiteness was used by those who wanted to erase us as a people. 

When we look at the poor and working class people of this country, we recognize the ghettos we were forced into and the sweatshops we worked in and organized against. 

When we look at the Palestinians and see their dispossession and displacement, we recognize our own history of exile and persecution. 

As an American Jew, I am tremendously proud that Bernie Sanders has shown an entire generation of Americans — of all races and religions — that it is possible to overcome fear with hope, division with unity, and hatred with love. Whatever happens with Bernie’s campaign, he has popularized the notion of political revolution and democratic socialism, and won over millennials by such an overwhelming margin that it’s inevitable his message is the future of the Democratic Party and politics in the U.S.

It’s time for all Jews to take heed of his message. Bernie’s version of Jewish socialism harkens to a time when our people’s belief in solidarity and unity was not confined to those who shared our blood. It was in those moments of Jewish solidarity with other peoples - in the strikes against the sweatshop bosses, in the early kibbutzim that brought people together across race and religion, in the movements against racism and patriarchy — that made us a light unto the nations. It is a stern rebuke to those in our community — in the U.S. and in Israel — who believe Jews should only care about the freedom and dignity of other Jews.

Far from being an obstacle to overcome, Bernie’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a huge attraction to the young Americans Jews who are flocking to his campaign. His recognition of the humanity of Palestinians and the injustice of the occupation is yet another sign that he shares our values. The rise of groups like IfNotNow, a youth-led movement against American Jewish support for the occupation, is a testament to the generational shift in our community from hatred of Palestinians to a belief in our shared fate. While some in the Jewish American establishment strive to marginalize Bernie and his movement by suggesting we’re self-hating Jews who don’t care about Israel, it just goes to show how badly out of touch they are with the future of our community, and the values of our tradition. 

The values of interconnection and togetherness across difference that Bernie espouses are the future of American politics — and the politics of the American Jewish community. Instead of running from those values in fear, or denying their essential Jewishness, I’d like to invite the rest of our community — in the U.S. and in Israel — into their power and righteousness.

This year in New York. Next year, god willing, in Jerusalem. 

Max Berger is a political organizer, trainer and writer in New York City. He was one of the leading participants in Occupy Wall Street and a founding member of IfNotNow. Follow him on Twitter: @MaxBerger